Review: Cuthbert of Farne, by Katherine Tiernan

Cuthbert of Farne, A novel of Northumbria’s warrior saint, is probably my best read of 2022 so far. I would love to show you the cover art but I cannot do so without infringing copyright, so to the left is a painting of the man himself.

I have long been fascinated by Celtic saints. I talked my husband into visiting Lindisfarne in 2019 and I wasn’t disappointed.

Katherine Tiernan’s novel takes the reader straight into the harsh life of barely Christian, Anglo-Saxon England of the seventh century. We spend time with King Oswy and Queen Enfleda of Northumbria, and their son Edfrith who succeeded to the throne later. We leave them, temporarily, after a bitter truce with King Penda of Mercia, in which Penda demanded six-year-old Edfrith as hostage. We move on to Cuthbert himself, then a newbie warrior, jousting with his friends, but a real battle, with the Deirans, so sickened him that he chose the religious life. We meet St Wilfrid, an ambitious priest and bishop, of the Roman persuasion. We find Aelfled, Oswy and Enfleda’s daughter, at the Abbey of Whitby, given as a thanksgiving to God for military successes. We are tempted to pity Aelfled, ‘cloistered’ in the cloister so young and without any choice in the matter, but, as her mother reflected, at least she was spared marriage to a stranger for the purposes some short-lived alliance. Aelfled succeeded Hild as Abbess of Whitby and thereby pursued the only sort of career available to women at that time.

Cuthbert, meanwhile, took on the burden of peacemaker, between the Celtic Christians and those of the Roman tradition. Although he preferred being alone in his hermitage on the remote and freezing cold island of Farne, in his later years he was made bishop of Lindisfarne and was responsible for bringing Lindisfarne around to the Roman tradition. Clashing frequently with Wilfrid, Cuthbert, like Aidan, Lindisfarne’s first abbot, wanted peace and harmony above all else.

My reasons for enjoying Cuthbert of Farne are, firstly, that, although it was a novel, it covered so much really interesting history. And it was immersive – I felt I was there in the seventh century, living on a freezing and windswept island, in a hut, my fingers frozen so I could hardly move them. Although Katherine Tiernan admitted that she had ‘modernised’ some of the names to make them more accessible to the reader, no concessions were made to modern sensibilities in the action. Children were taken as hostage (as they were in medieval times) and randomly placed in monasteries (not a bad place to be, actually). Parents grieved for them, but, at bottom, they accepted the situation, and the reader was expected to do so too. Moreover, the characters were devout Christians – ‘religious’ – and this was not a term of derision in those days.

Cuthbert of Farne is complete in that it recounts his life from adolescence to death, but Katherine Tiernan has also written Place of Repose: St Cuthbert’s Last Journey (about the moving of Cuthbert’s relics and the Lindisfarne Gospels during Viking invasions) and also A New Heaven and a New Earth: St Cuthbert and the Conquest of the North (set in Norman times).

Published by Sacristy Press.

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